When President Obama begins to speak to the combined legislative houses this evening, he will do so without the direct benefit of many people’s input. If popular democracy means anything then it should include the opportunity for people to give and have taken seriously their ideas about how policy should be framed. To some degree, that happens through the web of lobbyists who pour attention on legislators, who then pour their ideas into the political mixing bowl. But, I wonder if that needs to change, or even if it can.
Gone are the days when rulers sat in court and people stood in line to plead their cases. With social media spreading like topsy, ideas are fed through to politicians by the many electronic channels that now exist. People also still write letters to politicians. All of this often gets filtered, of course. That may be less bad than good, though the rawness of each person’s contribution has much to recommend leaving off the filters, at least sometimes. We heard some time ago that President Obama gets a selected set of 10 letters daily, which he then reads personally: “They help him focus on the real problems people are facing,” his Special Adviser, David Axelrod, had said. Mr. Obama then responds to two or three in his own hand.
People’s personal expressions are part of the President’s and other politicians’ sources for getting the true feelings about policy, and we have heard how politicians draw on them.
As a non-American, I cannot relate to how Americans feel that their aspirations are being addressed, but I can sense that many people feel, and have felt keenly during the past 3 years of so (during the recession), that more of their aspirations are not being met than was the case before. For all the talk about changing the tone of political discourse, I think we should also keep an ear open to how the voices of the people are reflected in the policy proposals that come from the President and whether he has managed to capture a tone that is truly filled with the empathy that comes not just from reading and hearing about what people feel but that comes from really feeling it too.